What’s old is new again. Nostalgia is a big deal in video games, especially those that come from indie developers. Retro graphics and gameplay that serve as callbacks to SNES games of yesteryear are all the rage. They recall the glory days of gaming, where weird and unique were necessities to create standouts in an age of relatively tame computing power; sometimes, though, this nostalgia is abused and used as a crutch. You have a tinny soundtrack and blocky graphics rivaling Final Fantasy VI? Great! Too bad there’s no substance underneath.
Shovel Knight, from Yacht Club Games, has that potential strike against it right off the bat, along with the (unfair) stigma of being a crowdfunded game. After all, throwback games are a dime a dozen on Kickstarter. Still, there was always something that made Shovel Knight feel a cut above the rest. Maybe it was the way they interacted with their fans and backers throughout the development process. Maybe it was the wealth of content they showed that gave the feeling that this wasn’t going to be a fresh coat of ‘80s paint over an empty shell. In any case, after a good deal of hype, Shovel Knight was released last week. So does it stand up to that hype?
Boy, does it.
Good news: Shovel Knight is an honest-to-goodness game, not an ironically glorified retro tech demo. Gameplay-wise it is reminiscent of the classic Duck Tales game, but overall it owes a lot to the Mega Man series. The premise is simple: you play as Shovel Knight, who is, appropriately, a knight who wields a shovel to fight the evil Order of No Quarter. Your shovel can be used to swipe at enemies, volley projectiles, or bounce off of bad guys from above; alternatively, you use it to dig up piles of treasure and dig through dirt, snow, and stone that blocks your way through levels. And speaking of those levels, your goal is to fight your way through, occasionally facing a mid-level boss, and defeating the level’s knight at the end.
The characters are where the Mega Man influences really show through. Besides Shovel Knight - a stout hero comparable to Mega Man himself - each of your adversaries are themed. You’ll face Propeller Knight, Polar Knight, and more. You don’t gain a boss’s abilities like you do in Mega Man, but you’ll occasionally come across items like a propeller or anchor that match the themes of levels. Even though you only meet these bosses at the ends of levels with a few lines of dialogue, each is packed with humor and character that make them instantly memorable.
Shovel Knight is simple. You have a button to jump, a button to attack...and that’s basically it. Still, that simplicity is deceiving because there’s a lot to unpack with the game. Take the checkpoint system, for instance. Each level contains five or so checkpoints that, obviously, respawn you when you die. (And you will die. A lot.) However, you also lose gold when you die, and are given the chance to reclaim winged moneybags to win back your hard-earned lost cash. This is important - money plays a pivotal role in the game, because what are you going to do with a shovel if not dig up treasure? In fact, money is so central that you have the option of breaking a checkpoint and collecting a reward for it. This means, of course, that you lose that checkpoint and would need to start over from the previous upon death. If you want more of a challenge, that’s one way to do it.
This system highlights the strength of Shovel Knight, that being that it’s just a damn good game. It’s a throwback game for sure, but there are no winks or nods to that fact. It takes old school aesthetics and applies 20+ years of gameplay development, tying it all together into one neat, fun package. You could throw some 3D graphics and some orchestral music in there and it would still be a damn good game. That’s the sign of a damn good game.
Shovel Knight walks a few fine lines between clever, funny, nostalgic, exciting, and challenging. It’s certainly one of the most well-rounded games in recent memory. Best of all, it’s fun; you’ll put a few hours into it without realizing - and without it feeling - that much time has passed at all. It’s clear that a lot of passion and hard work went into the game. Shovel Knight wants you to relive the games you played in your youth but it doesn’t want to rehash them. Tough goal? Absolutely. Does it work out? Absolutely.
Shovel Knight is now available on PC, Wii U, and 3DS